Monday, September 21, 2009

Stretching The Dictionary

Reading the news this morning made me laugh. I see that President Obama and George Stephanopoulos were arguing over whether or not the much-discussed Everyone Must Buy Health Insurance mandate qualified as a new tax on the middle class (thus breaking Obama's pledge to not raise taxes on the middle class) and Stephanopoulos broke out the dictionary. I had to go to YouTube and look it up. I cheered! That is something I would have done, and have done here, repeatedly.
Please don't accuse me of thinking that Stephanopoulos stole a trick from my playbook. I know perfectly well that he doesn't even know this blog exists. I still find it gratifying that someone in the mainstream media actually understands the concept of going to the dictionary - the official and codified record of what words mean - when debating the meaning of a word.
There were a few amazing moments in that little discussion (and by "amazing" I mean "Did he really go there?").
Obama accused Stephanopoulos of "stretching a little bit right there" for using the dictionary. Really? It is now considered "stretching" to go to the dictionary to settle a dispute on the meaning of a word? On what planet? I would like to think that this blatant Gotcha moment might come back to bite Obama but, unfortunately, I know all too well that his die hard supporters will just spin it to mean something else. They have already started attacking Stephanopoulos (by calling him - GASP - a Republican). The fact of the matter is that Obama was wrong, was caught being wrong, and tried to weasel out of it by making it seem like the eminently reasonable action of Stephanopoulos was something dirty and giggle-worthy. Apparently we are supposed to believe now that it is a bad thing to use words for what they actually mean.
Obama also made the amazing statement, "If I say that, right now, your premiums are going to be going up by 5 or 8 or 10% next year, and you say, 'Well that's not a tax increase.'" And I say, in this example, are you saying this as a president or as an insurance company? Because your example doesn't say. If you are saying this as a president then 1) Yes, that actually would be a tax increase, in exactly the same way that your mandate is a tax increase and 2) When did you, as president, gain the Constitutional authority to tell the insurance companies what they will and will not charge? If, in this example, you are saying this as an insurance company then no, that is not a tax increase because insurance companies do not collect taxes. Duh! You're not really this stupid, are you? Or, more to the point, you don't really believe that we are this stupid, do you?
Finally - no surprise here - Obama fell back on the constant (and constantly false) auto insurance analogy. "Everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase." For one thing, Mr. President, many people in America do consider that a tax and thus considered it a tax increase when such laws were passed. They may have agreed with the reason and need for the tax, but it was still a tax. After dismissing that strawman, we get to go back to the many reasons (already listed here) as to why the comparing health insurance mandate to auto insurance mandate is a false analogy. I know it sounds good and they do both have the word "insurance" in them, but surely a Harvard law professor can parse language better than that.
If you have to spend money you might not otherwise spend, because the government told you to, under penalty of law, that is a tax, no matter what other fancy terms you care to apply. If it is a new expenditure then it is a tax increase. No amount of fancy rhetoric will make this fact go away. It may be that you believe this tax increase is warranted, but that is an entirely different debate. Warranted or not, it is still a tax increase. Obama is faced with the choice of breaking his word to try and go forward with his healthcare policy ideas or keeping his word and probably not going forward with this ideas. It is a pretty classic No Win situation but then, frankly, he (and any other politician you care to know) should never have made that "no new taxes" pledge. That's a promise that never ends well in the long run.

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